Monday, July 31, 2023

W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (#ParisInJuly-just in time!)

"I'm counting the days until I can get back to Paris. It's the only place in the world for a civilized man to live."

It hurts me to report the speaker was in Chicago when he said it.

W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge comes out in 1944, but the events end before the Second World War and start in 1919. 

Elliott Templeton (our Paris booster) is in Chicago to visit his sister. The narrator of the novel (a novelist much like Maugham himself) is passing through Chicago and has lunch with Templeton, an old acquaintance. He also meets most of the other figures of the novel: Louisa Bradley, Templeton's sister; his niece, Isabel Bradley; Larry Darrell, Isabel's fiancé, Gray Maturin, who's in love with Isabel, rich, and whom her mother and uncle discreetly would prefer she marry; and Sophie Macdonald, a friend of the younger generation.

It's Larry Darrell's decisions that drive the action of the novel. He had lied about his age and managed to fight as a pilot for the French during WWI. The horrors he saw there, the fact that his life was saved by a friend who died in the process, have left him wondering about the big questions. He still loves Isabel, he says, but he wants to spend two years at least on a quest to discover the meaning of existence. (That's Bill Murray as Larry in something approaching a Hindu seeker's garment on the cover of my beat-up movie tie-in edition.) Larry wants to marry Isabel, but not to give up his search, and suggests that they live on his small inheritance while he continues. In his search, Larry reads philosophy (William James, Spinoza!), makes a retreat at a Benedictine monastery, and eventually travels to India.

But, after Spinoza, and before the monastery, Isabel says unh-unh to that proposal of impoverished seeking; instead she marries Gray Maturin, who was patiently waiting at her side. They have two children and a life of great social and financial success. Until 1929.

I think the novel is usually viewed as a story of spiritual seeking, and it is, of sorts. The Wikipedia article compares it to Hesse in its early (by Western standards) interest in Eastern spirituality. But Larry is not often on the scene, and the novelist character/narrator only meets Larry occasionally over the fifteen or twenty years of the novel. "I can only guess, you know, and I may be quite wrong. I think he's been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart." 

There's one long discussion about philosophy between Larry and the narrator in an all-night Paris café, which might be a little dull. But:

"I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worthwhile to write this book."

Hmm. I might still have felt it worthwhile to read it without that chapter, but it is important that Larry not just be an object of fun, but that his quest be taken seriously. And so it is. Still the diffidence and irony of the narrator means that while he takes Larry's quest seriously enough, it's not taken completely seriously, and there are other possibilities.

And in fact Elliott Templeton is present in much more of the novel. He's quite an amusing character who clearly codes as gay, though he's never explicitly described as such. He made his money as an art dealer, though his trading days are so vanishingly far behind him that he won't acknowledge they ever existed; he spends his time cultivating high-status social acquaintances. He's compared to Proust at one point, and not since Recherche has there been quite so much concentration on breaking into the Boulevard St. Germain. I found him the most entertaining character. His pronouncements are sometimes shocking, and maybe we shouldn't like him:
"I have always moved in the best society in Europe and I have no doubt I shall move in the best society in heaven. Our Lord has said: The House of my Father hath many mansions. It would be highly unsuitable to lodge the hoi polloi in a way to which they're entirely unaccustomed."
But at the same time he, too, is treated with real tenderness by the narrator.

Some bad things do happen, and at one point the narrator ends up in a police office in the matter of a dead girl:
    "'We found a number of detective stories in her room and two or three volumes of poetry. There was a Baudelaire and a Rimbaud and an English volume by someone called Eliot. Is he known?'
Our narrator can be amusingly catty himself:
    "Why d'you suppose they do it?" [get divorced]
    "Don't you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers."
"A novel which she knew from the beginning (otherwise she wouldn't have read it) would end happily."
Is that the sort of novel we're reading? Well...
" my intense surprise it dawned on me that without in the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: [Spoilers!] And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all."

Anyway, maybe I'm not one of those highbrows after all, but just another member of the public, and so I thought it was a good read. 😉

One from my Classics Club list.

And squeezing one late-breaking entry in for Paris in July!

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday Salon

Last Week

Two reviews on the blog: Robert Aickman's Go Back At Once and Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob. I finished Ivo Andrić's Omer Pasha Latas, but haven't yet reviewed it. But I will! Because it will cover Bosnia for the European Reading Challenge.


Somebody might have gone a little mad at the farmer's market fruit stand last week. (Plums, peaches, raspberries, watermelon!) We already had cherries, so something needed to be done with those:

And there were still strawberries available:

The arugula comes from the garden, and this is where I use that bottle of amazing aged balsamic vinegar we brought back from Italy. More of the same tonight. Darn!

Paris In July almost over. But I'm in the middle of one more book. Will it be finished in time? The race is on. Watch this space...

Hope you had a great week!

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob

"But does not every religion have some truth in it? All of them, even the most barbaric, have been permeated by the holy sparks."

Chuck is feeling a little triumphant that he's conquered so large a Nobel-prize winning book...

The Jacob of The Books of Jacob is Jacob Frank (1726-1791). He was born Jacob Leibowicz (spellings vary) in Korolivka, now in the Ukraine, but then in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His family were Sabbateans, that is, followers of the doctrine of Sabbatai Zevi, the Jewish mystic who converted to Islam in 1666. They were a merchant family, and Frank himself traveled and traded in the Ottoman empire, where he became fluent in Turkish. He met the leaders of the Sabbatean movement at the time, then in Salonika. It was while in Ottoman lands, he took on the name Frank; a frank to the Ottomans was any Western, non-Islamic foreigner.

He also underwent several religious experiences, and eventually proclaimed himself the heir to Sabbatai Zevi, the third in a series of Jewish Messiahs. It might take a fourth to bring about salvation, a female to embody Shekinah, or wisdom. 

Frank considered the Talmud to be outdated--this was also the belief of Sabbateans in general--and it was a virtuous act to violate Mosaic law: eat pork, not fast on holy days, speak the name of the Lord. Expectedly enough this got him in trouble with more orthodox Jewish rabbis, and he was declared a heretic. Political in-fighting ensued, and Frank with his followers converted to Christianity, while still intending to retain something of their separate Jewish identity. (Sabbatai Zevi had converted to Islam, but the Sabbataean community remained largely separate.) This was the ultimate repudiation of Mosaic law. You can imagine this as either evil apostasy or noble ecumenicism, and both points of view were to be found at the time and are present in the novel. 

Converting to Christianity brought Frank protectors, but they weren't strong enough or didn't care enough, and Frank ended up jailed for thirteen years, only released by a Russian general at the first partition of Poland in 1772. Frank and many of his followers left Poland, settling first in Austro-Hungarian lands, before being pushed on to Offenbach-am-Main, now in Germany, where he died.

The novel has a few modes: much of it is in a standard free indirect that follows Jacob Frank, his followers, or other historical figures; there are also sections from the writings of Nahman of Busk, who is the theologian to Frank's mystic. There are letters, particularly those between Fr. Chmielowski, a Jesuit and author of the first Polish encyclopedia, and Elżbieta Drużbacka, a poetess. (Both historical figures, though the letters are imaginary.) Tokarczuk takes the religious experiences seriously, and within the framework of the novel, one is meant to believe they are real. Jewish folk magic also works in the novel, with particular impact on Jacob Frank's grandmother. 

Various historical figures you might know do show up: for example Empress Maria Theresa and Kasimir Pulaski (who also fought in the American Revolution) are perhaps the two most notable. Frank meets both of them.

It's the third Tokarczuk novel I've read; it's easily the biggest, but also the best. (Though I think I'd start with Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead. Flights was my least favorite of the three, though still impressive.) It's a fascinating and convincing look at a historical place and period that I knew next to nothing about, with multiple generations and characters that change, grow and/or shrink, over the course of forty years. No character is a moral saint, no one is a thorough-going villain. (Though some very bad things do happen.) It does not end with a bang: Frank dies of ill-health at 65 or so, his followers, acquaintances, enemies and supporters do as well, each in their turn.

I thought the translation (by Jennifer Croft) was superb.

At 965 pages, it's definitely a Big Book of Summer, and though I have hopes for at least one more big book this summer, it will certainly be the biggest.

There's also my European Reading Challenge. It's one of those border-crossing books that could fit into practically any slot. Frank spends significant periods in places that are now in the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany. Still, Tokarczuk is Polish and writes in Polish; it's in Warsaw that Frank converts, and those thirteen years he's imprisoned it's in Częstochowa in Poland. So Poland it is!

And one I actually put on my 20 Books of Summer list!


"If people could read the same books, they would inhabit the same world."


    "'Is all this true?' the lovely and talented Maria Szymanowska, née Wołowska, the pianist, asked him many years later,...
    'Madam, it is a novel. It is literature.'"


"Nonetheless it is written that any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light." 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Robert Aickman's Go Back At Once

"It seems likely that Cressida would never have encountered the greatest man of his age (some, including the man himself, said, of any age) but for Vivien's enthusiasm and drive in the early stages of the project."

Cressida Hazeborough and her friend Vivien Poins have just finished school. "Both Cressida and Vivien were perfectly clever enough to go on to university and, having arrived there, to excel; but there was no question of that for either of them." It's 1920, and Cressida is expected to go home and wait to get married. This does not appeal. Cressida decides to get a job in a shop instead, because that's her only alternative; Vivien, of a wealthier family, does the same, because it's something to do. They both settle in London, moving in with Vivien's Aunt Agnes, scandalous because divorced.

But the 'greatest man of his age' (self-proclaimed) is Virgilio Vittore, and he's just taken over the city of Trino, which he proposes to govern according to the laws of music. Vittore, ugly but magnetic, once had an affair with Aunt Agnes, and when he takes over Trino, he invites Aunt Agnes to come to Trino and do something useful, maybe nursing, not that Aunt Agnes has any particular experience nursing. Vivien--and Cressida--encourage Aunt Agnes to go, because...adventure!

I found the book a riot. I don't really remember where I came across it, but the library could deliver it. It came out last year from And Other Stories press. I'd never heard of Robert Aickman before, but he's supposed to be best known for his tales of the supernatural. He wrote this in 1975, but died in 1981 with it unpublished. It was eventually discovered among his papers and issued at last. I was giggling away as I read it, and The Other Reader picked it up subsequently and has now nearly finished it, and found it just as enjoyable as I did.

Virgilio Vittore is clearly based on Gabriele D'Annunzio, also ugly but magnetic, a precursor of Italian Fascism, who invaded the neutral Fiume (modern Rijeka, in Croatia) in the aftermath of World War I. He wanted to give it to Italy, but the Italian government, embarrassed by this clearly illegal gift, wouldn't take it. 

But, while that's all true, that makes the book sound heavy in a way that it's not. Cressida and Vivien and a few other nice English girls looking for adventure meet a bunch of oddballs, a few of whom aren't very nice, in Trino, but are perfectly capable of dealing with them. Does Cressida meet Vittore? And is he all he's cracked up to be? Well. I do recommend you find out for yourself!

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Sunday Salon


Last Week

Read some books... 😉

Actually I haven't quite finished the Ivo Andrić, but I expect to soon. The Kobo is showing Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen, an obscure but interesting one. Now I need to write some blog posts! The Books of Jacob will be my second Big Book of Summer, and, at 965 pages, will certainly be the biggest.

To go with the one female Polish Nobel Prize winner I was reading, I posted the poem of another earlier in the week, Wisława Szymborska's 'The Onion'.

Last week my translation of Catullus 92 appeared in pixels here.

We were up north in Ontario at Killarney Provincial Park, where neither the phone nor the Internet could reach me. Which is nice! So, when not paddling around, it's a great spot for reading, enabling those long books.

If we time it right, we get lots and lots of blueberries:

This time we found enough for blueberry pancakes one morning but that was it. It had been a dry spring up north, which I suspect was the culprit. At least there had been no fires in that area.

Here's me trying to go all Monet...

After we got back we saw Umberto Eco: A Library of the World. "When I arrived thirty-five years ago, they were thirty-thousand. I have no more time to count them." That's books! Something to aspire to...

I read The Name of the Rose back when it came out and liked it a lot. I was less fond of some of his other novels, and haven't read them all. What I've read of his non-fiction is egghead-y, but playful, and that's about how he was in the movie. He seems like a nice man, and his kids like him (so that's a good sign). And the movie has pictures of some truly fantastic libraries, mostly in Italy, but not entirely. You can see some of them at the end of trailer, but lots more in the movie.

Hope your week was good!

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Wisława Szymborska's The Onion


The Onion

The onion, now that's something else.
Its innards don't exist.
Nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist.
Oniony on the inside,
onionesque it appears.
It follows its own daimonion
without our human tears.

Our skin is just a cover-up
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there's only onion
from its top to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.

At peace, of a piece,
internally at rest.
Inside it, there's a smaller one
of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
the third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Polyphony compressed.

Nature's rotundest tummy,
its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.
We hold veins, nerves, and fat,
secretions' secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
onionoid perfections.

-Wisława Szymborska (tr. Claire Cavanaugh and Stanley Barańczak)

That poem just makes me giggle. 'Nature's rotundest tummy', 'daimonion'. Often the smaller one inside is not just of 'undiminished worth', it's even better. The outer layers are generally damaged or dry.

Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) was a Polish Nobel Prize winner, best known as a poet. I've scheduled this post in advance, but I'm off-grid as this appears; I picked this, not just because it's fun, but also because I'm likely reading a rather large volume by another female Nobel Prize winner from Poland...

Friday, July 14, 2023

Time Shelter

"The point of the experiment was to create a protected past or 'protected time.' A time shelter. We wanted to open up a window into time and let the sick live there, along with their loved ones."

Gaustine, with the assistance of the narrator, 'Georgi Gospodinov', is looking to create a therapeutic safe space for those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. If the sufferer's happy time was in the 1960s, for example, they'll be treated in a wing of the clinic furnished like the 60s, with the furniture, the music, the cigarettes (there's a lot of talk about the cigarettes of different eras) and whatever else will be most effective. Gaustine is the clinical psychologist (though is he?) and 'Gospodinov', a Bulgarian novelist, is the presumed expert in telling the stories of the needed era.

That's the premise of Georgi Gospodinov's novel Time Shelter, which came out earlier this year in English, translated by Angela Rodel, and recently won the Man Booker International. If you've read other Gospodinov, you'll know that Gaustine is a recurring character in his fiction and has a way of moving from time to time at will.

But that's only the first section (of five). Gaustine sets up his clinic, in Switzerland, at least partly under the influence of Mann's The Magic Mountain, and we get the case history of the first two patients, one a dissident in Bulgaria in the 60s, and the second a woman who was a child during World War II. The therapy seems to help, family members are impressed, though of the second one, the 'Gospodinov' character says, "She's remembering, I say, that's why she's crying." Is a doubt creeping in for the reader?

In the second section, the treatment is so successful that even people who do not have Alzheimer's are eager to move to Gaustine-style clinics. (Others than the first in Switzerland are now open.) Whole countries are eager to move to a different point in time. But when? The various E.U. nations decide each will hold a referendum to determine their preferred era. The U.K. wants to join in as well, but the E.U. says, no, you've already left, and anyway, wasn't Brexit a referendum about to moving to an imagined earlier era? Switzerland wants to join in as well, and is allowed, but in the end punts due to their traditional neutrality.

The third section is a case of study of one referendum, that in Bulgaria. (Naturally enough for our Bulgarian author.) None of the countries are seriously considering anything prior to 1900, but what's the best decade in Bulgaria in the 20th century? There are partisans for most decades, but the polls show that it comes to two: the 80s, the stagnant but relatively safe end of the communist era and the 30s, Bulgarian nationalism at its most successful. (In the 20s in Bulgaria there was apparently a military coup, and fighting broke out for a couple of years.) Which will win? The Socs? or the Heroes? Polls show it's close.

The fourth section is a swift overview of the referendum outcomes across Europe. Europe is divided into camps. The 70s are popular, as are the 50s. Only Italy chooses the 60s, la dolce vita, don't you know? Will anybody actually choose the 40s? Things were pretty good then in Sweden for instance.

The E.U. (and Gospodinov the author) take the terms of these referenda seriously: if you've moved to the 80s, do you have to get rid of your cellphones? If to the 30s, do you have also get rid of your televisions? Travel across country lines is forbidden until these questions are sorted. Europe is once again broken into camps, but on different lines.

In the last section, 'Georgi Gospodinov' is losing his memory (or is he?) and in need of treatment. What's his preferred era? Gaustine writes,
"While writing a novel about those who have lost their memory, he himself begins to lose his memory. He rushes to finish it before he forgets what he was writing."
Can I say I think the novel is silly and also still say, I think it's a pretty major novel? Perhaps I should say absurd, a better lit-critty term, but that word comes with a lot of baggage and feels more ponderous than Time Shelter actually is. The whole premise is silly, but it's quite an inspired and suggestive silliness. And, as befits a novel about aging and losing one's memory, there's also a strong streak of melancholy throughout, most pronounced at the end.

[One thing it's not, though, is 'macabre', which was part of the description of the novel when it appeared on the Man Booker International shortlist, and is just absurd. Or silly.]

So: a novel about our relationship to the past, to history, to memory, to Europe. Maybe some other things, too. In a funny, serious package. At this point I haven't read any other of the Man Booker International shortlist novels, but this seems a solid choice.

I've liked Gospodinov in the past. Some other Gospodinov books on the blog.

A few other quotes that didn't quite fit in anywhere else, but I liked: 😉
"For a Bulgarian, complaining is like talking about the weather in England, you can never go wrong."
"I...sink into the cold cave of the library as if into another time, a time shelter."
"The less memory, the more past.
    As long as you remember, you hold at bay the times gone by. Like lighting a fire in the middle of a forest at night. Demons and wolves are crowding all around, the beasts of the past are tightening the circle, but still they don't step into it. The allegory is simple. As long as the flame of memory burns, you are the master."
"The end of a novel is like the end of the world, it's good to put it off."

Covering Bulgaria this year for me for Gilion's European Reading Challenge.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Campbell McGrath's Charlie Parker


Charlie Parker (1950)

Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.
Here are the gates of Babylon, the walls of Jericho cast down.
Might die in Chicago, Kansas City's where I was born.

Snowflake in a blizzard, purple rose before the thorn.
Stone by stone, note by note, atom by atom, noun by noun,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Uptown, downtown, following the river to its source,
Savoy, Three Deuces, Cotton Club, Lenox Lounge.
Might just die in Harlem, Kansas City's were I was born.

Bird is an abacus of possibility, Bird is riding the horse
of habit and augmented sevenths. King without a crown,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Bred to the labor of it, built to claw an eye from the storm,
made for the lowdown, the countdown, the breakdown.
Might die in Los Angeles, Kansas City's where I was born.

Bridge by bridge, solo by solo, set by set, chord by chord,
woodshed to penthouse, blue to black to brown,
Charlie Parker is building a metropolis with his horn.
Might just die in Birdland, Kansas City's where I was born.

-Campbell McGrath

XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century is a  collection of poems by contemporary American poet Campbell McGrath (b.1962). There's one poem for each year about either a person or an event associated with that year, a sort of snapshot history of the 20th century in verse. Though Charlie ("Bird") Parker only appears once, some of the people are the subject of several poems (Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Zora Neale Hurston, Mao, others). Events include Guernica, Hiroshima, the Apollo moon landing. 

This poem is a villanelle. (Well, perhaps -ish, depending on rigorous you like your villanelles.) McGrath uses a number of different forms. Here's another example (short and suitable to its subject... 😉):

Gertrude Stein (1909)

                  I arose.

I arouse.  Eye arroz.  I arrows.

                  I, a rose!

-Campbell McGrath

Anyway, all sorts of types of poems...

I've been meaning to do a McGrath for a while, but haven't. But it's now part of my series of poems using the Amurrican vernacular by poets associated with Florida universities. McGrath is at Florida International University.

Charlie Parker died in 1955 at the age of 34, in Manhattan, just over two miles from the jazz club Birdland. He had various health and personal problems that could done him in, and just one of them was heroin ('the horse/of habit') or maybe the habit of horse.

This is the song 'Summertime', and if I have it right, should be the version from his album of 1950, Charlie Parker with Strings:

Monday, July 10, 2023

Sunday Salon


I've left this until late, so I guess it will be short...


I finished John McGahern's Amongst Women, but only just before I had to return it to the library so no post. I thought it was very good. Briefly, Michael Moran has five children by his first wife who has passed away. He's married a second time. Sometimes he means well, but he's a skinflint and has a ferocious temper; he's managed to completely estrange his eldest son; his youngest, also a boy, is about to go, too. The three daughters in the middle have their lives' prospects limited by him. He fought in the Irish war for independence, and then on the 'wrong' side of the Irish civil war. It's left him estranged from society. Is that enough of an excuse?

Two posts on the blog last week. James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son from my Classics Club list. Though I had known Baldwin lived in Paris, I hadn't realized until I was well into the book that several of the essays in it described his experiences in Paris in the late 40s and early 50s so it also turned into my contribution to Paris in July. (Maybe I'll manage another; we'll see.)

I also finished Barbara Hamby's book of poems On the Street of Divine Love, and put up a poem from it here.

Those were two books I planned to read over the summer. As for that...

...Twenty Books of Summer list... far I've read 11 books since the start of June. I'm on track, right? But from that list I created in May, I've read 5, which is...pretty good for me following a list? 😉 Also from the list, I'm about half-way through Georgi Gospodinov's Man Booker International-winning Time Shelter, and very much enjoying it.


It's still strawberry season here (yay!) though not for much longer I suspect.

I made these lemon custard cups to show off the strawberries. I know I had a recipe for these somewhere, but could not find it, so I made it up as I went along. (More or less the NYT chocolate pots-de-creme recipe, just with lemon juice and zest instead of chocolate.) I overcooked them a bit as a consequence, but strawberries are very good at hiding cracks in your custard... 

How was your week?

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Ode to American English


Ode to American English

I was missing English one day, American, really,
  with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
  is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opera
  is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their delphiniums, but what about doowop, donuts,
  Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
  hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U. S. of A.,
the fragmented fandango of Dagwood's everyday flattening
  of Mr. Beasley at the sidewalk, fetuses floating 
on billboards, drive-by monster hip-hop stereos shaking
  the windows of my dining room like a 7.5 earthquake,
Ebonics, Spanglish, "you know" used as comma and period,
  the inability of 90% of the population to get the present perfect,
I have went, I have saw, I have tooken Jesus into my heart,
  the battle cry of the Bible belt, but no one uses
the King James anymore, only plain-speak versions,
  in which Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, says,
"Dude, wake up," and the L-man bolts up like a B-movie
  mummy. "Whoa, I was toasted." Yes, ma'am,
I miss the mongrel plenitude of American English, its fall-guy
  rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
  boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
  to the ubiquitous Valley Girl's like-like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty, its querulous
  back-biting righteous indignation, its preening rotgut
flag-waving cowardice. Suffering Succotash, sputters
  Sylvester the cat; sine die, say the pork-bellied legislators
of the swamps and plains. I miss all those guys, their Tweety-bird
  resilience, their Doris Day optimism, the candid unguent
of utter unhappiness on every channel, the midnight televangelist
  euphoric stew, the junk mail, voice mail vernacular.
On every boulevard and rue I miss the Tarzan cry of Johnny
  Weismueller, Johnny Cash, Johnny B. Goode,
and all the smart-talking, gum-snapping hard-girl dialogue,
  finger-popping x-rated street talk, sports babble,
Cheetoes, Cheerios, chili dog diatribes. Yeah, I miss them all,
  sitting here on my sidewalk throne sipping champagne
verses lined up like hearses, metaphors juking, nouns zipping
  in my head like Corvettes on Dexedrine, French verbs
slitting my throat, yearning for James Dean to jump my curb.

-Barbara Hamby

Barbara Hamby is an American (did you guess that?) poet raised in Hawaii and now in the English department at Florida State University in Tallahassee. On the Street of Divine Love is a new and selected volume that came out in 2014; 'Ode to American English' is from her volume Babel of 2004. I don't know when she was in Paris, thinking about American English. 😉

It goes from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, though C somehow comes later in the alphabet, doesn't it? I'm still looking for that translation of the Bible where the L-man says, "Whoa, I was toasted," but I do want to find it... I was a little surprised to find Johnny Weismuller's name spelled as the young Johann might have, not as Hollywood did to make more it palatable to Americans, but there you go. Pretty fun stuff. This was the poem I first saw of hers that made me want to read more.

That's iced tea next to the book above. It's been hot here!

A book I actually put on my 20 Books of Summer list.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (Classics Club, 20 Books of Summer, Paris in July)

"I want to be an honest man and a good writer." [9] 

James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son is a collection of previously published essays that comes out in book form late in 1955. The original essays appeared between 1948 and 1955 in magazines such as Harper's, Commentary, and Partisan Review. They were somewhat rewritten for the book.

His first, and at that point only published novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, had come out in 1953.

Baldwin gives himself a couple of briefs in this. The first is literary criticism, and two of these essays are probably the most famous in the book: 'Everybody's Protest Novel', about Uncle Tom's Cabin, and 'Many Thousands Gone', about Richard Wright's Native Son. He doesn't really like either one.

Native Son (1940) is also discussed in the essay on Uncle Tom's Cabin, and briefly in other essays. Well, the title of Baldwin's book is Notes of Native Son; the book was on his mind, and that of a lot of the rest of America. Baldwin and Wright had been friends, with Baldwin looking up to the older writer; but these two essays lead to their estrangement. Baldwin lumps the two novels together after noting that the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin are too thin to be believable, and so, even in their avowed political purpose--to stop slavery, to end racism--the novels don't succeed. Worse, the very limitations that Wright portrays in Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, reinforce White prejudice, and are internalized, to their detriment, by Blacks:
"Recording his days of anger he [Wright] has also nevertheless recorded, as no Negro before him had ever done, that fantasy Americans hold in their minds when they speak of the Negro...This is the significance of Native Son and also, unhappily, its overwhelming limitation." [26]
"It is not Bigger whom we fear, since his appearance among us [white America] makes our victory certain." [28]

Granted, seeing the world through Bigger Thomas' viewpoint limits a broad perspective on Negro culture of the time, or on American culture. Does it eliminate it entirely? Baldwin rather suggests it does, but I'm not sure I think this entirely fair. I've read Native Son, but it's been years, and I'd have to read it again to decide. (And now I want to.) But I doubt I'd agree. I also think Baldwin isn't quite acknowledging how much Native Son means to him. After all, Giovanni's Room, Baldwin's next novel, features a protagonist with limited options who ends up on Death Row, quite similarly to Native Son.

The one other cultural essay is a review of the movie Carmen Jones, which I haven't seen. The movie has Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge and is an all-black retelling of the opera Carmen. It's famous because it's the first Academy Award nomination for best actress given to a Black woman, Dandridge. She didn't win. But Baldwin here is in a fierce and funny mode that he does well.

He's also fierce and funny about Henry Wallace's Progressive Party and Wallace's campaign for president in 1948. Baldwin's younger brother David was part of a vocal group that was invited to sing at churches in Georgia to help get out the vote. They were supposed to be paid and fed. But even Progressives in a good Progressive cause can't be bothered to look after a foursome of black teenage boys--in the South!--who aren't paid, and are barely fed. Worse, the organizers get offended when their negligence is pointed out.

There are several other essays on the American scene of the time: life in Harlem, anti-Semitism in the Black community, the death of his father (step-father in actuality, though always referred to as father in this essay). That last one pairs well with Go Tell It On The Mountain and sheds light on the novel. While the fierce Baldwin can also be funny in a way that feels uniquely his, when he starts making sociological categorizations, I'm afraid his prose can turn ponderous.

"For Paris is, according to legend, the city where everyone loses his head, and his morals, lives through at least one histoire d'amour,..." [93]

I hadn't really thought about it when I started, but the book works for Paris in July; a third of it or so are his experiences in Paris after he moves there in November of 1948. He describes the American expat community in Paris at the time; American Blacks' relationship to Blacks from French Colonial Africa. The best of these essays--though in some ways the scariest for Baldwin--was on the eight days he spends in a Paris jail over Christmas of 1949. A friend in a fit of pique steals a sheet from a hotel on his way out; Baldwin uses the sheet in his own cheap hotel, because he can't get hotel management to change his sheets. Baldwin is arrested as a receiver of stolen goods. The case seems a joke, but Baldwin spends eight days in jail--more because of the holidays and bureaucracy than anything else, because when he does appear before a judge it's thrown out. But he's a Black man in jail! He knows France isn't America, but while his French is improving, he's not yet fluent. Just how much exactly is France not like America? After a couple of days he begins to wonder.

A book I actually put on my Twenty Books of Summer list...

...because I'd earlier put it on my Classics Club list...

...and a classic is kind of what it is.

It's also more or less an accident that I'm putting this post up on the Fourth of July, but appropriate, too:
"I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." [9]

Page numbers from the Library of America edition of Baldwin's Collected Essays